It’s nearly 4 a.m. On this day at about this time 119 years ago, after four decades in prison and in exile, Bahá’u’lláh died near Acre, then an outpost of the Ottoman Empire, now a city in Israel. So on this holy day it seems fitting to begin some reflections upon the meaning of suffering, not just upon His sorrows but upon those of all who fall victim to what Shakespeare’s Hamlet described as the ‘thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.’
On 11 March this year, in the middle of the Bahá’í Fast which, in my experience at least, sensitises us more than usual to the sufferings of others, the BBC posted the following news bulletin:
Japan’s most powerful earthquake since records began has struck the north-east coast, triggering a massive tsunami. Cars, ships and buildings were swept away by a wall of water after the 8.9-magnitude tremor, which struck about 400km (250 miles) north-east of Tokyo. A state of emergency has been declared at a nuclear power plant, where pressure has exceeded normal levels.
Officials say 350 people are dead and about 500 missing, but it is feared the final death toll will be much higher. In one ward alone in Sendai, a port city in Miyagi prefecture, 200 to 300 bodies were found. In the centre of Tokyo many people are spending the night in their offices. But thousands, perhaps millions, chose to walk home. Train services were suspended.
Even after the most violent earthquake anyone could remember the crowds were orderly and calm. The devastation is further to the north, along the Pacific coast. There a tsunami triggered by the quake reached 10km (six miles) inland in places carrying houses, buildings, boats and cars with it. In the city of Sendai the police found up to 300 bodies in a single ward. Outside the city in a built-up area a fire blazed across several kilometres.
Japan’s ground self-defence forces have been deployed, and the government has asked the US military based in the country for help. The scale of destruction from the biggest quake ever recorded in Japan will become clear only at first light. The quake was the fifth-largest in the world since 1900 and nearly 8,000 times stronger than the one which devastated Christchurch, New Zealand, last month, said scientists.
For anyone who believes that an all-powerful and all-merciful God set up the world this way, such events have to pose a problem. Would it not have been possible to do it differently if God were truly all-powerful? If it were possible to do it differently and eliminate the need for suffering, and He did not, then He is not all-merciful. If He is all-merciful and yet set up the world to contain so much pain, he cannot be all-powerful. There is no fudging the issue and those of us with a belief in God, at some time in our lives, will have to confront it or live in a state of denial.
For a Darwinian materialist, of course, there’s not an issue: ‘This is how the universe works and that’s all there is to say.’
So, why don’t I take that option?
It would end the apparently irresolvable paradox and remove the dissonance at one stroke. This is where I’m going to have to short-hand things because proving the existence of God is not the purpose of this post and in any case cannot be done in a way that would convince everyone for reasons that this blog has already explored countless times (see for instance the comments on Reitan’s book in the post on moral imagination).
I can’t revert to the atheism I used to find so plausible because, even if the existence of a purely insentient universe were not a compelling consideration, the fact that there is both life and consciousness is for me completely compelling. Life without consciousness is so utterly improbable that this alone would be enough to convince me, though, in that case, there would be no me to convince. Consciousness clinches it. The conditions to bring that into being are so improbable that I simply cannot persuade myself that they were not created by an intelligence for some purpose.
Once I’m impaled upon the thorns of that conviction, and it does bring all sorts of uncomfortable consequences in its train, I am also on the rack of the dilemma I described. How come there’s suffering?
Evil, in the sense of pain caused by people to other living sentient beings, can be put down to free will, which is a necessary precondition of moral and spiritual development, another complex issue that must get short shrift here as it’s not the main focus for now. Pain that is inherent to the design of the universe, when, as it does, it contains life forms that can feel it, is another issue altogether and the one I turn to now.
It clearly needs a lot more unpacking before I can fairly expect others to accept that disasters, such as the one Japan has so recently confronted, are compatible with the concept of a compassionate creator God. I find it pretty tough to do so myself and I’ve had years of practice now.
Some mileage can be made out of reminding myself that physical pain is a protector. Congenital analgesia ‘is a rare condition in which there is an absence of pain sensation from birth without the loss of other sensations or demonstrable nerve pathology. This can result in the individual unintentionally harming him or herself.’ When our nervous system is intact and our state of mind undisturbed, it is because we feel pain that we do not harm ourselves. This may extend to some degree into the realm of emotional pain. Experience teaches us what social situations hurt us and we learn to avoid them.
Even so, this benign function of pain does not resolve the crucial question for us, because an omnipotent God could, we presume, have made a world where there was no danger of harm and therefore no need for pain as a warning to us about it.
Pain as moral developer goes only so far towards resolving this. Clearly, where there is no fear or pain there’d be no need for heroes, and, where no one suffers, none of us would need to sacrifice our comfort to help them. Also pain has been described by Charles Tart as a ‘trance breaker’ that wakes us up to the deeper realities hiding behind matter. Again though, surely, an all-knowing deity could have worked round that one and made a world where moral growth could happen with no uncomfortable choices.
Even if it were possible to accept, for the reasons give, all those kinds of pain as compatible with a merciful creator, what are we to make of all the unavoidable and seemingly pointless ways painful injury and agonising death afflict us? The warning function of pain is of no use to the victim of an avalanche. There is no moral growth entailed for you when you drown in a tsunami. And trances could surely be broken by something less traumatic?
There is no way round the conclusion that the universe is set up the way it is because that’s the way God wants it, even if it makes no sense to us and tests our faith to breaking point. So, where can we go from here? Is there a way of reconciling the seemingly arbitrary pain of the world around us with a merciful creator?
Bahá’u’lláh forces our faith to confront all these issues when He writes in the Hidden Words:
51. O SON OF MAN! My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy. Hasten thereunto that thou mayest become an eternal light and an immortal spirit. This is My command unto thee, do thou observe it.
When the outward is all we can apparently experience, this statement challenges us to change our frame of reference quite radically. So, we are at the beginning of a journey of understanding which will take us through some difficult terrain. We’re in the territory John Donne describes in Satire III:
On a huge hill,
Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and about must go;
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so . . .
As traversing it will take some time, it needs the leisure of another post I fear.